Success in college football is almost always defined by wins and championships. Often times, the many steps it takes to get there—the minor milestones, the lesser barriers broken—are unappreciated, dwarfed by the bigger picture.
We are consumed by numbers, highlights and trophies. Anything less than perfection—especially when it involves resource-rich schools such as Texas—is viewed as a failure. Given the mind-boggling financial advantages it has over the majority of the football programs it competes against, perhaps this is not far from the truth.
For at least one season, however, all win-based, trophy-centric assessments of the Longhorns should be put on ice. Charlie Strong's first season is not about his team's record or what bowl game it can reach; it's about the little things and paving the way for something more.
This is the University of Texas, a place where nothing is small: the money, the enrollment, the facilities, the talent, the salaries, (the steaks); all of it has been constructed with and for enormous appetites. And while fans will silently circle double-digit wins as an ideal starting point under new leadership, 2014 should be about reestablishing a football foundation that has been lost over the past four seasons.
A program built on mass will struggle to stomach this strategy. Thankfully, the team's new head coach is all about the little things. It's why he's in this position in the first place.
One of Strong's first duties as head coach was to provide some unexpected (but honest) thoughts on the season ahead. Speaking with Brian Davis of the Austin American-Statesman earlier this offseason, he crushed all pipe dreams of a national championship in year one before they even started.
We have everything available, and I don't know why we can't be successful. There's no reason for us not to be. Now, I can't tell you how soon it’s going to be. Don't hold me to that. Don't say, 'Ooh, coach said next year we'll be in the national...' We will not be in the national championship game.
Of course, this means very little. While no one, including the most optimism-charged Texas fan, is ready to debate him on this, the Longhorns could run the table in the Big 12 behind a healthy David Ash at quarterback, a defense that quietly improved in the second half of last season and a solid core of running backs.
Then again, such a dream scenario—this one likely coming after a bottle of Merlot and a minimum of four Benadryl—is unlikely for a team with obvious weaknesses. The fact that the head coach is already bracing a fanbase for the obvious speaks volumes early on.
It's not shocking, but different. It's also refreshing to see the plan laid out for the world to see.
The schedule for Texas is by no means a cakewalk. It includes an out-of-conference game against a potential Top 25 team in BYU and a likely Top 10 team in UCLA. Also on the docket are Baylor, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and road games against Kansas State and Texas Tech in back-to-back weeks.
|August 30||North Texas||Austin, Texas|
|September 6||BYU||Austin, Texas|
|September 13||UCLA||Arlington, Texas|
|September 27||Kansas||Lawrence, Kansas|
|October 4||Baylor||Austin, Texas|
|October 11||Oklahoma||Dallas, Texas|
|October 18||Iowa State||Austin, Texas|
|October 25||Kansas State||Manhattan, Kansas|
|November 1||Texas Tech||Lubbock, Texas|
|November 8||West Virginia||Austin, Texas|
|November 15||Oklahoma State||Stillwater, Oklahoma|
|November 27||TCU||Austin, Texas|
There are more difficult schedules out there, but this doesn't have a sneak-up-on-10-wins feel to it. That season, especially now, will have been earned.
The team will feature both familiar faces and new parts. With three starters from last year's squad gone, the offensive line will be a position to watch come fall practice. The same can be said about the defensive line, which will have to replace Jackson Jeffcoat and Chris Whaley for starters.
It's worth pointing out that defensive line and linebacker were positions of strength in the spring, although new defensive coordinator Vance Bedford will gladly keep all scheme and personnel news quiet until the cameras begin to roll.
Returning will be perhaps the deepest stables of running backs in the country—at least when this group is healthy. Johnathan Gray returns from an Achilles injury, which came when his potential was finally being realized. He will be joined by Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron, which will make this group, regardless of the questions up front, one to watch.
Texas will also get back Quandre Diggs, one of the nation's most experienced (and talented) cornerbacks. Playing a schedule ripe with proficient passing teams, his presence is almost as significant as anyone's on the team.
The "almost" comes in the form of the obvious. Quarterback, of course, will dictate the Longhorns' season one way or another, and David Ash will be coming off yet another injury. Ash, who showed promise before dealing with concussion symptoms followed by a broken foot this spring, could be the answer at the position. The truth is, given the sample size and his turbulent history, we don't know.
If Ash's injury streak continues, Tyrone Swoopes will likely hear his name called (something Texas would have loved to hear last season). And if Swoopes struggles, promising young freshman Jerrod Heard—the No. 2 dual-threat quarterback in the 2014 class, according to 247Sports—could see time.
The roster is not without talent. In fact, this might be the most promise the defense has had in years. If the group can avoid injury—something that has been a tall order in recent seasons—perhaps this can start to look like a Charlie Strong-coached football team earlier than expected.
That, more than anything, should be how we consume Texas football in 2014. We'll focus in on the obvious: UCLA, Baylor and Oklahoma will all serve as perceived measuring sticks. The reality, however, is that one victory out of these three games should be considered a positive early step.
Taking that notion one step further, let's drift away from all accolade-driven means to measure.
Is the defensive line finally showing gap integrity? Is there hope, or better yet, stability at quarterback? Is the rebuilt offensive line getting the push we've been anxiously waiting to see? Are the future stars of the program contributing in ways that can only lead to optimism?
The in-tune football fan can seek out these things and embrace the satisfaction of seeing change. Given the development track record of the Longhorns' new football professor, it's safe to assume that the progress throughout the season will be evident.
Such progress may not translate to more wins or a bowl closer to January 1, at least not right away. But over the course of time, the items addressed in year one could serve as a turning point in a program looking to distance itself from a sudden rush of mediocrity.
And it all starts with, you guessed it, the little things.